I ALMOST Got to Play Apocalypse World

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me excitedly posting last week about finally getting to play Apocalypse World, a game I’ve been salivating over for years but never had a good opportunity to bring to my gaming table. Once I got confirmation from my TTRPG group that they were interested in playing, a switch flipped in my brain and all I could think about for days was getting ready for the game. I thought about apocalyptic worlds, I thought about the character I would create for myself if I were a player, I thought about how I would introduce the game to my players and tell them about the classes; I struggled to focus on anything other than how excited I was for this game. It was like Christmas Eve but for nerds.

My session did take place over the weekend, but to say it went smoothly would be a bit misleading. We actually did not get to finish the first session. You see, when you play Apocalypse World the first session of the game has a few key goals: you’re not only talking about the setting where the game is taking place, but also creating everyone’s characters and then playing out a small scenario to introduce everyone to the mechanics and to set up some of the key threats for the early game. It took us a good three hours to get through character creation – longer, I think, than the system really intends – and so we didn’t actually get to put dice to the table or do any roleplaying.

Part of the challenge came from playing virtually. Apocalypse World is a new system to all my players and we’re playing on the computer in various locations across the state where we live. With five players needing to work on their characters in a system they’ve never played, you can always expect character creation to be a bit lengthier than normal. But what really kicked us in the knee for this game was the virtual tabletop we were using, Roll20. I’ve used Roll20 for years and while I’ve generally not been impressed with its usefulness as a tool for video or audio chat, it generally has been a good space for hosting maps, dice, and character sheets for a group of folks playing in separate locations. Unfortunately the quality of the character sheet for a given system is largely dependent on who creates it, and boy howdy is the Apocalypse World character sheet bad. Even with the efforts I took beforehand to prep sheets and fill in info to make things easier for my players, the virtual sheets were bad enough that eventually I just sent everyone the free PDF of the reference materials and started filling out my own hard copies by hand.

While I am disappointed that we didn’t get to properly play any of the game, character creation still ended up being interesting in spite of the technical challenges. My players were interested in a world where the natural environment had become essentially uninhabitable – the example that was given was poisonous rain that would kill anyone caught outside in a storm. Another player brought up that they liked the idea of the world being flooded so all the remaining communities were on boats, or having some other setup where massive vehicles were now the only remaining towns. From this premise we created a world where, in the dying throes of the planet, humanity build large makeshift transports which now wander a desolate and deadly waste. Their characters would live and work on one such transport.

The different playbooks in Apocalypse World emphasize unique mechanical elements in the game. Our crew has a gunlugger (a combat specialist) as well as an angel (a healer), so the battle mechanics will be important to our campaign. Thanks to the presence of a brainer (a psychic) and a savvyhead (a mechanic), weird powers and advanced tech will also be essential components of the setting. Finally, our maestro d’ (owner of a vice den) brings everything together by providing an establishment that can serve as a central location for the game. With that establishment came a heaping helping of NPCs for us to work with as well, giving me an opportunity as the master of ceremonies (MC) to build lots of characters right off the bat.

Normally, the small bit of playtime that happens after character creation is fuel for MC prep between sessions. While I didn’t have any playtime to work with, I did have plenty of worldbuilding details to iron out as well as NPCs, vehicles, and landscapes to design as threats. Threats are a core mechanical piece of Apocalypse World as they determine the MC moves currently in play. Each character, organization, and location can be dangerous to the player characters in some way. It’s up to the MC to think about how that might manifest and make preparations accordingly. Because most of my threats right now were NPCs, I ended up designing a large number of Brutes, a threat type that includes mobs, enforcers, cultists, and even protective family units. I did also get to make a warlord type and a grotesque type to keep things varied.

Threats have a few essential building blocks. There’s the type, to which I have already alluded, which establishes the types of moves available to the threat as well as the impulse that drives them. As an example, my maestro d’ has a favorite regular at his bar named Irish Mike. Now just because Irish is a favorite doesn’t mean he’s a threat, and in this case I chose the “family” threat type. Mike seems chill generally but all of his actions are motivated by protecting his family. When a player inevitably becomes a problem for the people Irish Mike cares about, they’ll learn just how dangerous he can be. It’s also important to understand where threats exist in relation to the cast of the game. For example, the Landscape threat of the outside world is on the outer ring of my threat map, generally far away from the players unless they travel well outside of their usual boundaries. Knowing where threats exist and what they do will help me to be equipped to use them effectively during play.

While I unfortunately still have not really gotten to play Apocalypse World, at least pushing through character creation and having the opportunity to do some MC prep has helped to satiate my thirst until I can get some dice on the virtual table next weekend. I hope soon to have some true first impressions of the game based on seeing the mechanics in play. Until then, I’ll be keeping myself content with worldbuilding and thinking about the best way to truly start our first session with aplomb!

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